The Fourth Highest Price Fetched at Auction for a Letter by Washington, and the Highest Price for a Single-Page Letter
Letter from Washington to His Wartime Aide James McHenry Dated December 10, 1783
Washington Describes Seeing the British Evacuate New York and His Intention of Resigning His Military Commission and Becoming a Private Citizen
An important George Washington letter achieved a stunning $362,500 at Doyle New York’s November 5, 2012 auction of Rare Books and Autographs. Purchased by a private collector, the letter far surpassed its pre-sale estimate of $80,000-100,000. It was the fourth highest price fetched at auction for a letter by Washington and the highest price for a single-page letter.
The letter was written by George Washington to his wartime aide James McHenry on December 10, 1783. Washington writes of his intention to resign his commission as Continental Commander and become “translated into a private Citizen.” In 1859, this remarkable letter was sold with McHenry's archives at auction, where it was purchased by Baltimore collector William T. Walters, in whose family it has descended to the current consignor.
The November 5 auction was preceded by special preview exhibitions of the letter in Washington, DC at historic Tudor Place, and in Boston, MA at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The Arrival of Peace
Upon the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, the American Revolution officially ended. The British, having taken Manhattan eight years earlier after the Battle of Long Island in 1776, now faced a gargantuan task – the removal of the remaining 29,000 British soldiers, loyalists and war refugees occupying the island, as well as the military property and hundreds of ships occupying New York’s vast harbor. This evacuation was delayed several times and was finally scheduled to be completed on November 25, 1783.
Commander George Washington watched the proceedings of that day from New Jersey and entered the city once the last British ship sailed and the American flag was raised. The final shots of the Revolution were reportedly fired as the British left the harbor and the American flag replaced the British flag on an allegedly greased flagpole in the Battery. When Washington entered the city, he led a triumphant parade down Broadway alongside Governor George Clinton in a strong signal of restored American sovereignty. “Evacuation Day,” as the day came to be known, was celebrated annually for many years.
Washington longed to return to his beloved Mount Vernon after his eight-year ordeal as Continental Commander-in-Chief. He intended to resign his commission in person in front of the Continental Congress at Annapolis, MD. On December 4, Washington called together his officers and bid them farewell in a tear-infused ceremony at New York's Fraunces Tavern, and he left the city later that day. Washington was increasingly celebrated on his journey to resign. He graciously addressed jubilant crowds at every stop along the way, including New Brunswick and Trenton, NJ, before reaching Philadelphia on December 9. His schedule of writing and reciting these addresses allowed little time for personal correspondence, but Washington did take thetime to pen the current letter to his close friend, fellow Virginian and wartime aideJames McHenry. Washington was usually quite reserved in his declarations but is candid and direct in this letter:
My Dear Sir,
After seeing the backs of the British forces turned upon us, and the State of New York putinto the peaceable possession of its Governor, I set out for this place.
"This place." This place refers to Philadelphia, the site of the first gathering of unhappy colonial delegates that became the Continental Congress. Philadelphia was the most important American city of the 18th century, where revolution was argued for even in the face of treason to the British crown and where the Declaration of Independence had been signed on July 4, 1776. Only weeks later, Washington and his militia would be forced to retreat from New York after the Battle of Long Island on August 26, 1776, not to return for eight years. The significance of Washington returning to Philadelphia victorious cannot be overstated.
After the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the Continental Congress reconvened in Annapolis on November 25, 1783. Washington continues the letter:
On Monday next I expect to leave the city, and by slow traveling arrive at Baltimore on Wednesday, where I will spend one day and then proceed to Annapolis and get translated into a private Citizen.
Translated into a private Citizen.” Washington's desire to retire to Mount Vernon rather than continue in public service is much recounted in American folklore. However, a large constituency of Americans desired and expected Washington to become the lifelong military ruler of the new nation. His resignation was an act of commitment to the political motivation that had launched the American Revolution and shows his utmost respect to the members of the Continental Congress who were tasked with forming the government of the United States. Resigning as Commander and returning to private life was the ultimate revolutionary act. Washington's language here is candid but also evocative and philosophical – "get translated into a private Citizen." Washington acknowledges that the concept of the private citizen now required a forced redefinition. He becomes the first of many to transform himself from a disenfranchised British subject into a revolutionary and, upon victory, into a startling new entity: the free American citizen.
Census of Contemporary Letters
In the days between the evacuation of New York and his resignation in Annapolis, Washington made direct reference to his retirement only to select members of his “military family.” On December 9, 1783, the day before the McHenry letter, he wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in a letter known only from the transcription in Washington’s letter book now at the Library ofCongress:
We have just now my Dear Friend closed the military scene by taking possession of New York. I am now on my way to Annapolis to lay my resignation before Congress, from thence I shall retire directly to Mount Vernon, where I anticipate the pleasing moment when I shall embrace My Dr. Marqs. [Dear Marquis]
On December 23, 1783, minutes before his resignation in Annapolis, Washington wrote to his confidant Major General Baron Von Steuben in a letter now in the collection of the Secretary of the United States Senate:
This is the last Letter I shall ever write while I continue in the service of my Country; the hour of my resignation is fixed at twelve this day; after which I shall become a private Citizen on the Banks of the Potomack where I shall be glad to embrace you.
That day at noon, Washington resigned his command in front of the Continental Congress, telling them:
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country … Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
A New Nation
Washington did retire, but not for long. In 1787 he was lured from Mount Vernon to participate in the Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia, and he was elected the nation’s first president in 1789. Washington served two terms before retiring for a final time in 1797. George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. Days later, the century that had seen the transformation of America from disparate colonies to nationhood would close. Thus began for the new nation that had translated itself into the United States a period of unparalleled freedom for its citizens, which continues to this day.